Paula Jarvis Garland wrote:
“Here’s my question: If everything is predestined, then how does prayer change things? Can our prayers cause God to change his mind?”
Paula, thanks for your question. It’s actually two questions, one concerning predestination and the other concerning the impact of prayer. I’ll take the one about predestination first and then close with the one about prayer. Here goes.
The word “predestination” (or some form of it) is used four times in scripture. In Romans 8:29, the predestining is the Christian being predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus. In Romans 8:30, it is associated with the Christian being called, justified, and glorified. In Ephesians 1:5, it is the Christian being predestined to adoption into God’s family. In Ephesians 1:11, it is the Christian being predestined to obtain a heavenly inheritance.
You’ll notice in these references that the Biblical definition of predestination has to do with the rewards of salvation. The predestining is to the eternal blessings that flow out of the salvation experience, not to the salvation experience itself. Predestination centers around promises, promises that God makes to the Christian. As J. Vernon McGee says in his commentary on Romans, “Predestination means that, when God saves you, He is going to see you through.”
Predestination is not God handpicking some to be on the “saved” list and others to be on the “damned” list. It isn’t Him forcing anyone to do anything. Instead, it is Him saying to the person who has voluntarily placed saving belief in Jesus Christ, “Okay, now that you’ve done that, here are My promises to you.” As Harry Ironside writes in his commentary on Ephesians:
You see, predestination is not God from eternity saying, “This man goes to heaven and this man to hell.” No, but predestination teaches me that when I have believed in Christ, when I have trusted Him as my Savior, I may know on the authority of God that it is settled forever that some day I am to become exactly like my Savior. It settles the question of the security of my salvation. Whatever my present unsatisfactory experiences may be, some day I shall be altogether like the One who has redeemed me.
Similarly, Herbert Lockyer states:
What must be borne in mind is the fact that predestination is not God’s predetermining from past ages who should and who should not be saved. Scripture does not teach this view. What it does teach is that the doctrine of predestination concerns the future of believers.
The point in all this is that everything is not predestined. Truth be told, Biblical predestination really has nothing to do with earthly happenings. Yes, God always has a will in every earthly situation, but He doesn’t stack the deck to ensure that His will gets done. To the contrary, it is rare when His will does get done upon the earth.
For example, it isn’t God’s will for a gunman to walk into a movie theater and open fire. It isn’t His will for a thief to rob someone’s money. It isn’t His will for a mother to abort her baby. It isn’t His will for a pastor to have an affair with the church secretary. God certainly doesn’t predestine these acts. He allows them, and He can even use them in His plans (as He did with the Jews and the Romans working in concert to unjustly get Jesus crucified), but He doesn’t predestine them. These are the acts of sinful people, not holy God.
Acts 2:23 says that Jesus was delivered to death “…by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God…” (N.K.J.V.). Notice that it doesn’t say that Jesus was delivered to death by the predestination of God. That would imply that the Jews and the Romans had no choice in what they did. It would mean that God programmed them to carry out His plan regardless of their objections. You see, God having a foreknowledge that something is going to happen is not the same thing as Him willing or predestining that something to happen.
Now let me move on to the question about God changing His mind in response to prayer. For an answer, the best I can do is offer a list of examples straight from scripture. Here are 10:
- In Genesis chapter 18, three men visit Abraham. In actuality, these “men” are two angels and none other than Jesus (making a pre-incarnate appearance in the Old Testament). After announcing that Abraham and Sarah will have a son in nine months time (18:9-15), Jesus dispatches the two angels and tells Abraham that the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are slated for destruction (18:16-22). This is sad news for Abraham because Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family live in Sodom. And so Abraham enters into negotiations with the Lord (18:23-33), negotiations that amount to prayers because Abraham is talking directly to Jesus. “Lord, what if you find 50 righteous people in Sodom? Will you still destroy it?” “No.” “Lord, what if you find 45 righteous people? Will you still destroy it?” “No.” “What if you find 40?” “No.” “What about 30?” “No.” How about 20?” “No.” “Lord, suppose you find 10 righteous people there? Will you still destroy it?” “No.” That’s as far as Abraham went, but who can deny that his prayer had a definite impact upon the Lord’s plans? Unfortunately, the Lord didn’t find even 10 righteous people in Sodom.
- In Exodus chapter 32, while Moses is atop Mount Sinai communing with God, the Israelites make a golden calf to worship. The act angers God so much that He says to Moses, “I’m going to consume these stiff-necked people and use you to begin a whole new nation” (Exodus 32:7-10). In response to that, Moses pleads with God not to destroy the Israelites (Exodus 32:11-14). Since Moses is talking directly to God, it isn’t a stretch to classify those pleadings as a prayer. And does that prayer have an effect? Yes, Exodus 32:14 says: “So the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people” (N.K.J.V.).
- In Numbers chapter 14, the Israelites commit another great sin by refusing to enter the promised land of Canaan (14:1-10). Similar to what He had once told Moses on Mount Sinai, God tells Moses that He is going to strike the Israelites with a pestilence, disinherit them, and start a new nation with him (14:11-12). Once again, though, Moses begs God not to do it (14:13-19) and God spares the lives of the Israelites. God does, however, decree that all the Israelites 20 years old or older (except for Joshua and Caleb) will never enter Canaan (14:20-38).
- In 2 Kings chapter 20, Judah’s King Hezekiah is sick and near death. The prophet Isaiah goes to him and tells him to set his house in order because he will not live (20:1-2). Hezekiah turns his face toward the wall and prays, asking God to remember how he has walked before Him in truth (20:3). God hears the prayer, and even before Isaiah has gotten out of the palace God says to him, “Return to Hezekiah and tell him that I have heard his prayer. Tell him that I am going to heal him, add fifteen more years to his life, and deliver Jerusalem from the hand of the Assyrians” (20-4-6). How’s that for prayer having a positive effect? This same story is also told in Isaiah chapter 38 and referenced in Jeremiah 26:19.
- In Jeremiah 18:7-8, God says, “The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it” (N.K.J.V.). While it’s true that prayer isn’t specifically mentioned in this passage, the basic idea is that even when God has judgment planned for a nation, the response of that nation’s citizens can alter the plan.
- In Amos 7:1-6, God gives the prophet Amos two visions of two devastating judgments that He is going to inflict upon Israel. One is an invasion of locusts that will devour Israel’s crops. The other is a wildfire that will devour the land. After each vision, Amos begs God not to send the judgment. And how does God respond to Amos’ two “prayers”? In each instance, He relents and doesn’t send the judgment.
- In the story of Jonah, God sends the prophet to cry out against the city of Nineveh because of the wickedness of its inhabitants (1:1-2; 3:1-2). The message God gives Jonah to preach to those citizens is, “In 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown” (3:4). The message is simple, blunt, and seemingly final. However, in response to those citizens entering into a time of fasting and repentance, God relents from the judgment He has said would come upon the city (3:5-10). Here again, prayer isn’t mentioned as part of what those citizens did, but it is undeniable that God does respond positively to their actions. Jonah even gets mad at God for relenting from the judgment and says to Him, “Isn’t this what I said you would do even before I came here?” (4:1-2).
- Matthew 13:53-58 and Mark 6:1-6 record the story of a ministry trip that Jesus made to His hometown of Nazareth. Because of the unbelief on the part of the citizens, Jesus could do no mighty work there except for a few cases of healing. This story proves that God responds accordingly to our actions (belief, prayers, etc.).
- Matthew 17:14-21 and Mark 9:14-29 record the story of a father and his demon-possessed son. 9 of the chosen 12 disciples try to cast out the demon but fail. Jesus then comes onto the scene and gets the job done. When the disciples ask Him why they couldn’t cast out the demon, Jesus explains, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” The obvious teaching is that prayer and fasting are what make the difference in the outcome of certain situations.
- In James 5:13-18, the New Testament sings the praises of the power that prayer has to change circumstances. According to the passage, prayer (along with anointing) can lead to the sick being healed. In the case of the prophet Elijah, it can cause God to withhold rain for three-and-a-half years. While there is a fair amount of debate about the specifics of how this passage should be applied, we can at least say with certainty that the passage teaches that prayer changes things.
So, it’s along about now that someone says, “Great. All these passages clear up the matter entirely. My prayers can get God to change His mind.” Well, you might want to slow your roll on that and not run hog wild with the idea. I say that because there are some other passages that must be taken into account concerning this subject, and they take things to a deeper level. Here are five of them (all from the N.K.J.V.):
- Malachi 3:6: “For I am the Lord, I do not change…”
- James 1:17: Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.
- Numbers 23:19: God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man that He should repent…
- 1 Samuel 15:29: “…the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man, that He should relent.”
- Romans 11:29: For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
To add a little more spice to this gumbo, we must also take into account God’s perfect foreknowledge. Here are just three passages (all from the N.K.J.V.) from that sizable category:
- Isaiah 46:9-10: “Remember the former things of old, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure.”
- Jeremiah 1:4-5: Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.”
- 1 Peter 1:1-2: Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ:
It is at this point that the question becomes: “How can we correctly blend all of these different ideas about God and all of these different passages together?” And I’ll answer that question by offering seven basic thoughts as the close to this post. Hopefully, these will help us seamlessly weave all this post’s information into our walk with the Lord. Ready? Here goes:
- God, from before Genesis 1:1, has had a perfect foreknowledge of all human history. In a very real sense, everything we do is a rerun to Him. Nothing takes Him by surprise. Nothing confuses Him. Nothing alters His historical timeline.
- Prayer can, in certain instances, cause God to change His mind about something. The scriptural cases are too many and too easily understood to be ignored.
- Even when God changes His mind, the change of mind has been foreseen and accounted for since before Genesis 1:1 and has been incorporated into the historical timeline.
- God changes His mind not only to encourage us to pray but also to “humanize” Himself to us. It is a part of Him interacting with us on a deeply personal, intimate level. He doesn’t change His mind because His original plan was a mistake or could stand some improvement; He changes it because He enjoys allowing us to play a role in helping Him shape history.
- Despite the fact that God is eternal, He takes great delight in interjecting Himself into time so that He can meet with us for fellowship, communion, worship, and prayer. And as a part of Him meeting with us, He dialogues with us in prayer and even allows our prayers to change His mind when the change fits His purposes.
- No matter what God plans to do for us, in us, and through us, He always painstakingly works through the detailed step-by-step process of bringing the thing to pass. Putting it another way, God chooses to get us involved in making something happen rather than just arbitrarily making it happen all by Himself. This is why He encourages us, even commands us, to cast our cares upon Him (1 Peter 5:6-7) and take our requests to Him (Philippians 4:6).
- The same Bible that talks about predestination and God’s foreknowledge also says quite clearly: “…you do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2, N.K.J.V.). In light of this spiritual truth, we are crazy not to ask God for what we want. Like any good parent, His answer will oftentimes be, “No,” but also like any good parent, He won’t hate the child for asking.